Q&A with local bartenders, brewers, authors, and any others we deem worthy.

Interview with Pillbox Brewery’s Brendan McClenahan

Brendan lives in Encinitas, CA and began brewing as a hobby in the summer of 2009. He founded Pillbox Brewery and started a club where people can pay to join and taste each batch he makes. He also does tastings, private trainings, and small events such as weddings and private parties.

How did you get started? Any inspiration?

I went to Stone Brewery in Escondido with my friend Calvin. We toured the facility and learned all about the process of how to brew. Although I had no previous experience, I enjoy cooking and gardening and was encouraged to try it out. I began reading books and researching dozens of websites, and found many contradictions in the process. Everyone had their own way of brewing. I was determined to find a way that was simple, but yet yielded great tasting beer.

How did you come up with the name, Pillbox Brewery?

I first stated brewing at my parent’s place in Solana Beach, which overlooks the surf spot called Pillbox. Seemed like a good name to me.

Tell us about your process of brewing.

Brewing beer is like making tea with barley. First you steep the grains in 150-degree water. This releases the sweet fermentable sugars called dextrose. After removing the spent barley, you bring the water to a boil and add hops. After an hour you let it cool, put it in a bucket, add yeast, and store it in a dark area for 2 weeks. The yeast eats all that sugar and creates alcohol and CO2. Then I add a little more sugar, bottle and cap it.

Is there anything you do differently than most?

My process is less complicated than most. I choose to keep the process simple and let the ingredients do the work. I am big on sanitation. Basically nothing that hasn’t been sanitized can touch the beer after the boil. But even with minor mistakes, my beer turns out great.

What types of beer have you brewed and what were your favorites?

I have probably made 20-25 batches over the last couple years, and none of them the same. My favorite was either a Belgian Strong Ale called Soren Kierkegaard or a clone of the Dog Fish Head 90 minute IPA called TyPA. I also made a variation of that called Hoppy Pistotti for a friend’s wedding.  Sometimes I’ll experiment with fun beers like my Maple Ale, Double Chocolate Stout, Peppermint Stout and a Hefeweizen/Cider called Wassailweisen.

How do you decide what flavors to add?

The sky is the limit – you can make any type of beer. Basically, whatever would go well with bread would be good in beer. Apples, cloves, apricots, chocolate, etc. all make great beer.

Though I don’t use adjuncts often anymore. It’s fun to fool around with that stuff but the best beer I’ve made is simply barley, water, hops and yeast. I guess that’s what the german reinheitsgebot is all about.

Have you ever experimented with beer cocktails?

No, never even thought of it, but maybe you could take one of mine and serve it back to me all spruced up!

What has been your biggest success and biggest failure?

Biggest failure was a recent batch of Westvleterenga No. 12 that I was brewing, which was spilling out the top of the airlock during primary fermentation. I went to replace the dirty airlock, but when I took it off it erupted. Beer sprayed like a geyser into my face, up to the ceiling, and all over the floor! Don’t try this at home, kids. The good news is that it dripped from my hair down my face and into my mouth, and I loved the taste :)

Biggest success was the TyPA I made. It was a big step forward for me in terms of creating a very complex hop profile and balancing that against a mature full body.

What recommendation would you give someone who wants to learn?

Read “The Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian.  Also, talk to a friend or someone who brews and do it with them or borrow their equipment before you make the investment. Once you start yourself, it is a messy journey of trial and error and learning to be creative. Be prepared to make mistakes and learn throughout the process.

What is needed to start home brewing?

I would tell people to visit Brewmasters Warehouse. They have everything you need to get started. Once you have tried out the starter kits, and are feeling a bit more adventurous, you can build your own recipe using the custom recipe kit application. Not only can you add your own ingredients, but the application will help with quantities and give you an idea of how the beer will turn out. Most of my recipes are public, so you can even order my exact beers. They also ship your entire order from Georgia for $7, no matter what you order.

What are your favorite local breweries and why?

San Diego has some great breweries. My favorites are Green Flash, Pizza Port, and Ballast Point. They’re making some awesome beer. There are other great craft breweries all around the country that are all worth a shot. For example, I just tasted Hess for the first time – it was their abbey ale and was seriously impressed! I’d love to go for a visit and see what they do. I’m not much of a beer snob, I just have a ton of respect for any brewery that’s willing to put themselves out there and try new things.

Would you consider selling it or do you want to drink it all yourself?

Oh man the legal side of that is super complicated. I kind of get around all that with a club I set up where members contribute and end up drinking almost all of the beer I make. Besides that I love to do beer tastings for groups, brew a batch for a local wedding or other event. But before I have any huge aspirations I want a few more years to really nail down my recipes and invest in equipment.

How much is it to join the club? What can members expect?

I ask them to give $50 per year and in return they can have pretty much as many beers as they want for the whole year. I brew about 9 five-gallon batches per year, which comes out to like 450 bottles. So there are around 30 beers for 15 or so members. But I could make whatever work. I just love to share it.

Obviously most people don’t brew to save money, but for the art. But how does making your own beer compare to buying it in stores?

 The reason I do it is for the craft and experience. Actually, I don’t even drink most of the beer I make. It either goes to members in the club or I give it away. I can make a bottle for about $1.00-1.50. That is right on par with many other craft beers in stores, but I have the satisfaction of making it myself. I may switch to all grain brewing next year, which would cut down on my costs because I wouldn’t have to buy extracts. In order to make that leap, I need to invest in more equipment and hit the books to figure out a totally new system. Yes, it’s less expensive, but hopefully it will give me more control over the taste and quality of the beer.

Feel free to contact me on Facebook with any questions or ideas!

Categories: Interviews

Interview with Dave Stolte, Author of Home Bar Basics

Since we liked Home Bar Basics so much we asked author Dave Stolte to answer a few questions regarding the book, drinks, bars, and plenty of other things. A special thanks to Dave for taking the time to answer these! Check out his website at

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

Among friends and family, I’ve been “the cocktail guy” for a while – called upon to make drinks at parties, help plan menus, offer advice, and stuff like that. For a couple years, I’ve been making little promotional calendars featuring cocktail recipes alongside my illustrations – sending them out to art directors in LA and New York. Then earlier this year, a friend wrote asking for help in setting up a home bar. I think he had a bottle of Jack Daniels, some Margarita mix, and maybe some Bacardi. So I replied with a long, detailed email that wound up becoming a blog post. From there, another designer friend said, “sounds like you have the makings of a book there.” That’s when the light bulb went off and I started putting this book together. The size was deliberately chosen to help make an intimidating topic feel approachable, like people can get their head around it if it fits in their back pocket or purse.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with writing/publishing the book?

I knew I had the drive and the interest to make this happen. The biggest challenge I had as a self-publisher was how to finance the operation. I wanted it to be a no-risk situation for me, so I wound up launching a fundraising page at Kickstarter. The first try failed, the second try (with a lower budget and longer lead time) succeeded, plus extra. Other challenges included quality control on the printing: using Polyart synthetic water-resistant, tear-resistant paper was a no-brainer, but finding a printer who knows how to work on this stuff took a few months.

What type of background do you have?

I’m a visual artist. I head up a distributed design studio called Wexler of California, working as Design Director. I have a handful of specialists I work with as the project needs them: a web user-experience designer, a marketing guy, photographer, and copywriter. I also do editorial and fine-art illustration, and have been in a few gallery shows.

Were you self-taught making cocktails? Any influences?

Self-taught, by necessity. When I first got interested in making cocktails, it was still the dark ages of the ’90s. My wife Kristin and I taught ourselves how to cook and cocktails seemed like a natural extension – something you can enjoy while prepping dinner. At the time, Wired magazine and bartender Paul Harrington had a section on their website called “Cocktail Time” that would publish a new, classic drink every Friday afternoon. I’d try to find the components and make the drinks at home, to varying degrees of success. This website became the book “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century” and that was my go-to for many years. Beyond that came old, vintage books like the “Esquire Handbook for Hosts,” “Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink,” and more recently, Ted Haigh’s “Forgotten Cocktails” book and Imbibe magazine, of course.

As I was writing this book, I knew I couldn’t rely on my cloistered, suburban experience completely – so I started hanging out in Downtown LA, meeting great people like Daniel Djang of Thirsty in LA, Eric Alperin of The Varnish, Ed Hamilton from The Ministry of Rum, Rocky Yeh of The Proof Collection, and even met up with my virtual guru Paul Harrington. All of these guys gave some incredible feedback and encouragement on early drafts of the book and helped perfect it.

What other cocktail books would you recommend?

The new PDT book is amazing, if a little intimidating. It’s truly a thing of beauty. I like “Beachbum Berry Remixed” and Gaz Regan’s “The Joy of Mixology.” And a soft spot for the 1953 Esquire book mentioned above… even the part where they say if you’re having a barbecue party, be sure to spray a healthy amount of DDT all over right before guests arrive. Classic!

What is the one most important thing you would tell someone who is setting up a home bar?

I tell people “take your time.” Start with one drink, get it right, and move on to the next one. Don’t try to become a master home bartender in one weekend. Don’t skimp on ingredients or substitute “close enough.” It’s better to go without than go with something half-ass.

What drinks have you created yourself? Or do you stick with the classics?

Just a couple – a few years ago, I made a companion drink to Trader Vic’s El Diablo called El Angelo – tequila, lime, St. Germain, and lemonade soda served tall. Recently, I came up with a cocktail called Pemberton (named after the guy who invented Coca-Cola) – Bulleit bourbon, Ramazotti, vanilla & cinnamon syrup and Miracle Mile Bergamot Bitters – stirred, served up with an orange zest garnish.

What is your all-time favorite drink?

If I could only pick one, it’d be a Sidecar made with Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy. Skip the sugared rim. But somehow, I’d figure out a way to sneak in a well-made Margarita, Old Fashioned, and Negroni.

If you were to write another book, what would it be?

People have already started asking that – and I don’t imagine there’ll be a part two of the book. I’d rather expand the content on the Home Bar Basics website, adding new recipes beyond the book, product reviews, videos, and stuff like that.

Another passion is good barbecue – hardwood charcoal, different wood smokes, handmade spice rubs and sauces. Maybe there’ll be a “Home Barbecue Basics,” who knows? Bar & Grill, after all.

Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?

I became “interested” in spirits in college, if you can call Everclear in a watermelon interesting. That was when the Adios Motherf@$*ker was the height of cocktail craftsmanship. Backed off for a while, then came back to reassess the situation in the ’90s and started learning about the neglected history of all these amazing drinks. I really believe the cocktail is one of America’s finest contributions to the world, alongside jazz and barbecue. It’s great to see them getting their due in places like Seattle, Portland, LA, New York, and elsewhere.

What are your favorite bars in LA?

There’s such an inspiring scene in LA right now – people are passionate about their craft. Kind and welcoming, great hosts and great friends. It may be more about the people than any particular bar for me, but there’s Jason Schiffer, Erik Trickett, and Matt Robold at 320 Main, Eric Alperin, Marcos Tello, Chris Bostick, and Devon Tarby at The Varnish, Allan Katz, Danielle Crouch, and Douglas Williams at Caña, Aidan Demarest at Neat, Mia Sarazen at Harvard & Stone, Daniel Zacharczuk at Bar & Kitchen, Zahra Bates at Providence, the Buhens at Tiki Ti… and many more I have yet to visit.

What is the craft cocktail industry lacking?

Domination. The cocktail scene is still overrun with a bad hangover from the ’80s and ’90s, just garbage like Whipped Vodka and drinks ending in “-tini.” The craft way of doing things may gain broader acceptance, who knows? I hope it does. Just as long as they keep honoring the classics alongside all the fantastic innovation and experimentation that’s going on now.

I met a young bartender lately who confessed he had to look up how to make an Old Fashioned when someone ordered one recently. I suspect that’s typical for most bars and restaurants – and it’s kind of shocking to me that such a cornerstone recipe has been cast aside like a neglected grandparent. That’s part of what I wanted to do with this book – focus on the classics done in the best way possible for a home enthusiast, using the best brands they’re likely to have access to without too much hassle. Not to take anything away from these great bars that are doing it right, but most people around the country don’t live near a decent drink. I hope this book helps spread the word in some small way.

Categories: Interviews

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